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Keep Your Identity Small (2009) (paulgraham.com)
386 points by mooreds 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 300 comments





If people cannot argue fruitfully about questions that are part of their identity (and I agree with this premise), then it follows that for one to win politically (or convert them), the trick is not to convince people that your views are correct, but rather to convince people that their identity is threatened and that them maintaining their current identity (whatever that identity may be—and perhaps vagueness is key here) depends on you winning (or joining your group). Let them fill in the blanks on your views, wherever possible, as the specifics aren’t that relevant anyway.

This is what I perceive our political discourse has been reduced to. Maybe it never has been more than that.

I like the author’s conclusion that to keep an open mind, don’t make stuff your “identity.” Yet the instinct of many is just the opposite, so that not religion and party affiliation but even the most trivial things are stated as identity: “I’m a coffee person, not a tea person.” “I’m a dog person, not a cat person,” and other such bizarreness. Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?


Identity is used to automate decision making, so less energy is expended on conscious thought, so less time is spent weighing pros and cons of each alternative for every daily decision. If someone is 'dog person' they have routine where they take dog for walks, with positive effects such as exercise, without having to weigh pros and cons each time it is performed. If someone is coffee person, they do not have to weigh pros and cons of what to drink with breakfast. With politics this is perhaps bad, as we do not want people to make decisions unconciously, we want citizens to weigh pros and cons conciously, so that they are less easily duped. But for other daily activities it is useful to simplify decision making so conscious thought can be allocated elsewhere.

I appreciate how you framed this and helped me see how identity can help us streamline the decisions we make in what we do.

I think identity can have a secondary effect of communicating to others those decisions we've made about what to do.

For example, Someone: What do you do? Me: I give speeches. Someone: So you're a speaker?

It can be a way to bundle a bunch of actions/beliefs/etc into something that is quicker/easier to communicate to others. For example, as a speaker, I may write speeches, deliver speeches, book clients, travel to different companies, and other actions.

The challenges may come in the disagreements we have about which actions belong to which identities. For example, a speaker for some may be someone who speaks at corporations and gets paid for it. For others, it may be someone who gives motivational speeches to schools. For others, it may be someone who speaks on YouTube videos. So for each of those groups, they may hear "speaker" and associate different actions/beliefs/etc. and it can lead to conflict. I know I've seen some of this conflict when I tell someone I have created some Wordpress sites, they can immediately jump into "so you're a coder" and I can quickly think "no no, coders are people who create fullstack stuff, I'm just a tinkerer," etc etc.


>The challenges may come in the disagreements we have about which actions belong to which identities.

This is where the benefits of using tools like E-Prime, a form of English language that avoids usage of the verb "to be" help me. Thinking about things in terms of e-prime allows me to realize that while using labels as a shorthand for more specific information is convenient, I lose specificity and precision, and begin to think in terms of identity when I use labels and think/speak in terms of what things are, rather than think in terms of what people or things actually do.


Sweet, I'll check it out! I had heard of it but never dove too deeply into it. I have used a lot more of the semantic primes framework, which may yield similar results by parsing phrases into very simple, irreducible concepts. If you like E-Prime, you may like semantic primes :-)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_primes


> If someone is 'dog person' they have routine where they take dog for walks, with positive effects such as exercise, without having to weigh pros and cons each time it is performed.

That describes a dog owner which is a much more concrete category than "dog person". Not every "dog person" actually has a dog. Even if you want a dog, your apartment might not allow dogs, or you might not have time/money to care for a dog while working.


> That describes a dog owner

You'd think so, but unfortunately, not all dog owners actually care about their dogs.


[Serious]I feel I've wasted so much time weighing pros and cons when someone asks me something like what my favorite animal is, because I never really made these things part of my identity.

I'm not sure people with a readily-available answer for these questions made these things part of their identity, they just use language differently.

For many people, language isn't that much about content, but about signaling affection, social bonds, respect etc. (and of course all the opposites). So "how are you" signals "I care for you", though they don't necessearily want/ are able to work with an honest answer - i.e. the moment of asking is the actual content, and words are just the communication channel.

People who work like this have readily available favorite animals and colors and so on because having these answers is important for maintaining fluent conversation, not necessarily because these things are more important to them. This different usage of language also explains why people often complain about something, but don't want to hear solutions from their communication partner: It's more about bonding by sharing the ups and downs of life, not about searching for a new solution.

And in my experience people working like this sometimes are self-conscious about communication, too, but focussing on the level that's elusive to them: Fearing they are dumb, don't know enough about the topic at hand and so on.


Somewhere I’ve read something in the lines of “I’m not five, I don’t have a favourite color”. I’d go on a limb and say that if this kind of questions is asked you can either take it as an ice breaker and discuss the pros and cons (it makes for better small talk than weather) or answer at random if you don’t actually want to engage with the person.

>> "Somewhere I’ve read something in the lines of “I’m not five, I don’t have a favourite color”."

That comes off as combative and doesn't make any sense. There's no connection between getting older and losing the ability to have preferences. I answer hot pink because it's true, and because it surprises people who think they know everything about me based on outward appearance.


I think it's more about choices being more nuanced as you get older, not really losing preferences. E.g. one might not have a favorite movie, but could have favorite action movie or similar.

Btw, 'hot pink' is the correct answer to the "what's your favorite color" question.


If this is the explanation then shouldn't we find it weird how intensely factional humans are about identities? How much work marketers put into identifying segments and creating associations? A smart robot would also economize on decisions, but it wouldn't necessarily gang up with other Emacs robots against the vi robots.

Well of course it wouldn't because all robots are Emacs robots \s.

“...so conscious thought can be allocated elsewhere.”

If at all. If you subscribe to thinking in identity-terms for optimization benefits, don’t you get a whole host of other heuristics and shortcuts to ‘conscious thought’?

For one thing, ‘uncertainty’ can be reduced. It’s this or that. And politically, you can turn uncertainty into us/them.


Add, “curiosity”. That gets in the way of automated/automatic thinking. Always eat the same foods, because what if you don’t like the food you buy/served? Then you go hungry (the classic mother, eat the food I make you or go hungry). Or, you waste other resources.

Automatically you get many other rules and reasoning,

If the food you eat doesn’t upset your stomach, don’t change—-what more do you need?

Why change, it’s all going to the same place in the end.

Unmoved and impenetrable to argument these shortcuts come with other formative logics.


It also begs the question of why politics is the one field everyone seems to be an expert in - and the true experts in the field are never listened to.

Having the broader population decide geopolitical relationships, is like telling your doctor which cancer medication you should take.


I don't see these things as identities - at least, they don't have to be.

If you own a dog, you should take your dog for walks because you care about your dog, not because you're a dog person and that's what dog people do. If you drink tea every morning, that's a habit or routine - possibly a caffeine addiction if skipping it gives you withdrawal symptoms. You don't need to identify as a tea person for that routine to be useful to you.

I think both habits and identities can be harmful in politics, but identities are worse. If someone questions your habits, you might stop to think about them, but most people become defensive when someone questions their identity.


I was talking with people I consider to be very smart and intellectual. We were discussing the California propositions. They did not want to hear the specifics of the propositions. They only wanted to know which organizations were supporting which propositions. This is what political discourse is these days. Figuring out which team you're on based on what political influencers agree with you. Nobody bothers to understand the issues and argue the merits of those issues. It's too easy to make an ideological mistake that way given how arbitrary and complex the rules are these days.

Why is this a problem? If there's a proposition out there the wording is going to be sufficiently dense that it's not super-likely a casual observer will have a good grasp of it's actual effect, whereas if you're gay and the local LGBTQI support organizations are coming out in favor of a proposition, then it's fairly unlikely this is something you want to oppose.

There's a big difference between "this political party supports this legislation" and "this issue-focused group is supporting it".

It's putting blinkers on to pretend that legislation is not frequently titled and described in summary terms, which are quite different to the legal, social or physical specifics of what the individual clauses will do and representative organizations provide a very important function by having the time and people on hand to properly understand issues which affect the groups they represent.


Arguably for most propositions it should be absolutely irrelevant to a gay person what the local LGBTQI support organizations think about it, since most propositions are about other, unrelated issues.

If, for example, gay people would be voting on gig worker law propositions based on LGBTQI support organization recommendations and gun right fans would be voting on housing law propositions based on what the NRA recommends, that (to me) seems like a big problem for democracy, as the issues don't get evaluated on their merits but purely on tribalism.


> If, for example, gay people would be voting on gig worker law propositions based on LGBTQI support organization recommendations

Gay people don't have to, and often don't, vote based on LGBTQI organization recommendations.

However, if LGBTQI organizations believe that LGBTQI people are more impacted by gig work, shouldn't the orgs be speaking on that?

It seems relevant to me. As long as dismissal for being gay is still possible, workers' rights seem to be very much in scope for these organizations.

[To downvoters: What's the point of having an organization, otherwise?]


There are plenty of reasons to have a strong organization irrespective of whether it does what it says it does.

  1. To silence valid criticism & gag public opinion. 
  2. To take advantage of a splintered population of
  insignificant and disorganized clusters and interest groups
  & gain legislative / political power.
  3. To steer discussion & policy directives toward
  boondoggle initiatives so that there is semblance of
  progress but very little to show in the way of actual
  positive outcomes - outcomes deemed not core to the said
  group's world outlook.
  4. To bully lawmakers into shaping public policies in the
  hopes of creating a moat so big, that it effectively
  shields said organization from any incursion, for decades
  to come.
Basically all organizations - in the current highly polarized atmosphere - want to concentrate power within themselves for use as currency for various objectives - whose motivations are not necessarily what they appear on the surface. No matter what the organization is, the more powerful it is the more of these things it engages in, by virtue of just being powerful.

I can certainly understand making political decisions based on the recommendation of political organisation you trust.

But often an organisation will have multiple goals, some of which you find more important than others; and they'll evolve their stances over time, to stay relevant in a shifting political climate.

So giving your unwavering, uncritical support to a single organisation is only a little less naive than giving the same support to a single political party.


I don’t think it would be surprising in many places that alt-lifestyle folks would find more discrimination in traditional work areas and have specific interests in gig props.

But I’d agree there are probably domains where the interests don’t really intersect.


It would however be kind of weird for an lgbtqi support group, which is by definition supposed to be a focus group, turns out to also advocate for completely unrelated stuff. Then again I’m not gay so I don’t know what lgbtqi support groups tend to do.

Because organization always conflate many ideas and interest together and on top of that organization and their idea changes with time.

For example Props 16 in California wanted to amend the state constitution by removing the article that sated that the state doesn't make any difference between different sexes/colors/sexuality.

Depending on how you place yourself regarding recent identity politics movement, you can be LGBTQI and prefer a state that doesn't discriminate because it's progressive or a state that discriminate because it can enact affirmative action.


> if you're gay and the local LGBTQI support organizations are coming out in favor of a proposition, then it's fairly unlikely this is something you want to oppose.

Let's agree to disagree on this. I think it is a bad assumption to think that activist organizations actually "represent" the larger associated community. It is much more likely they they are advocating for the ideas of the vocal leadership of the organization and not for the membership or the larger associated community.


It is not a problem until it becomes a default way of thinking. If you don’t care about a law proposal, yes, why not default to the position of an organization you believe you share opinions with.

But if you do care, like it’s a topic that matters to you, or when you do engage in a political debate, it should be your duty as a citizen to have your own point of view and to be ok to change it whenever needed. If you can’t do that, you are not ready for political discussion or debates.

And it’s totally ok to answer « I don’t know / I don’t care about this topic » when invited to give your point. « Why should I care? » is totally ok if you think there is something.


Unfortunately people are required to take positions on an inordinately large amount of issues by social pressure and also by participatory politics at several levels.

Just staying moderately up to date with the issues is a full time job, which most people cannot afford to perform alongside their running commitments.

Most people just outsource their thinking on most issues to a shaky trust structure based on moral myths, and feel righteous and enlightened about it.


I think that kind of works for negative case - if something is supported by Amazon, Nestle, or Chinese Communist Party, it's probably not something good for the people of the world.

Not sure about the positive case - I guess if EFF supports something, it is more likely it might be good?


This is easily demonstrable to fail. Amazon, for all intents and purposes, supports the EV revolution, should we oppose it? The CCP invests massively in PV panel production, should we oppose PV ? I can find counter examples even from Nazis or the communists.

I think there is no easy win here. If you even remotely care about an issue, you should do a minimum effort to read about it from multiple sources. e.g. for American politics, I found that the quickest way to gauge where an issue stands is by reading at least CNN and Fox, because they are diametrically opposed, so you can kind of guess where the middle ground is. Reading more neutral and informed pieces could come later on, if I really want to dive in.


Great point. I also like that you look at both CNN and Fox. The one thing I would add to it is to look at additional sources. Ie for health information, look at journals, cdc ect. For economic issues, look at the BLS ect. Oftentimes the truth lies there and CNN and Fox just have shallow interpretations of it.

Reminds me of an SMBC comic on "Quantum Hypocrisy": https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/gedankendouche

// “I’m a dog person, not a cat person,” and other such bizarreness. Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?

This is a powerful concept. When I studied yogic philosophy, the teacher pointed out how our language biases us towards identification.

"I am hungry" in English reads like a statement of identity, whereas "j'ai faim" in French for example means "I HAVE a hunger". The hunger exists but it doesn't define my identity.

This identification is a lie. If you stop drinking coffee and start drinking tea, you are still 100% you, plus you have evolved (whatever information caused you to switch your preference must be new to you)

This gets into self limitation very quickly. "I AM bad at public speaking" means you don't try. "I don't HAVE public speaking skills" leaves room for choice to improve.

There are a few things that are core values to who you really are. Those are important. Your choice of beverage isn't.


>"I am hungry" in English reads like a statement of identity, whereas "j'ai faim" in French for example means "I HAVE a hunger". The hunger exists but it doesn't define my identity.

>This identification is a lie. If you stop drinking coffee and start drinking tea, you are still 100% you,

Your analysis of "I am hungry" is incorrect. In this case, the "am" is acting as a linking word and not about identity. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copula_(linguistics)

Or put another way, "I am hungry" can be thought of as a shortened version of "I am [currently having feelings of] hunger". If the more verbose sentence is not about identity but sensation, the shortened version is expressing the same idea.


This understanding is also closer to Spanish's "ser" and "estar" - both get translated as "am"/"is", but "ser" is for identity and "estar" is for state.

I absolutely love that Spanish uses different words to describe a temporary state vs a permanent state.

"I am sad" absolutely should use a different word than "I am from California," and English gets it wrong by combining the two.


Interesting tidbit. I guess I didn't argue linguistics with the teacher because I appreciated the larger philosophical point this was trying to teach.

As an aside (not not saying you were doing this btw) whenever there's an analogy, some percentage of people will try to argue the analogy directly rather than try to understand the concept it's attempting to communicate.


You may be interested in E-Prime, "a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime


I have found E-prime really helpful to me as a tool to ingrain the habit of thinking of things and people in terms of what they do, rather than what they are or how we label them.

This tidbit on language sounds deep and insightful, but it really isn't. French people and culture have just as many issues with identity and identity politics. If not more so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_groups_in_th...


Identities are the basis of social communities. The idea of "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you" is correct. But it ignores the fact that there is a minimum number of labels that all socially adapted humans must use to identify themselves. These labels can be religious, political, hobbies, character traits, etc.

You may label yourself as an "intelligent person" or a "hacker". Other people might choose to label themselves as a "dog person". It doesn't matter what the labels are. Everybody has to choose some number of labels and stick to them, at least for a while. The labels are what allow people to accomplish social tasks and form societies built on trust.

Keeping your identity small by using few labels is good advice. But it's important to recognize that the labels are like an oil that keeps the machine of society running


I make an effort to not say "I am X" but "I prefer X". I think it helps me automate decisions as pointed out above (I just have coffee in the morn) but does not make it sound or feel like any weighty major life decision, and therefore might make me feel slightly less predetermined (on occasion I might prefer tea!). Similarly, a younger me considered myself smart, now I prefer to think of myself as someone who is pretty good at using logic. Being able to say: "you can too!" seems more productive than saying "you're dumb and just don't get it". It has also lead to succesfully questioning some of my own preconceptions (why would I exclude myself from logical analysis?), while being criticized for 'being smart(ass)' feels more like an attack.

One can still label one's self in terms of things they do rather than what one thinks they are.

Rather than label one's self (or others) as "intelligent", one can think in terms of they are a person who takes time to be thoughtful/analytical/measured/takes tim to view all sides of a situation.

Rather than think "I am a hacker", one can realize that they mean hacker as a shortcut (label) to mean they engage in DIY projects, or like to ae software, or like to automate things, or like to deconstruct software to find vulnerabilities, or like to deconstruct technology to use it for originally unintended purposes.

Labels are convenient and useful but it is important to realize they are only a shorthand and that they can cause confusion or hurt as much as they help.


> Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?

This is biologically preconditioned. We have brain wiring for identifying "Us" and "Them".

BigThink put up a compilation video [1] on this topic.

[1] - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14XSzWT4vI0


Ehw,no. The ego ( the prime source of identity ) only enters existence when we first encounter another. And even then, it's nature constantly differs, instigated by it's surroundings. In a nutshell, your "Us" and "Them" usually differ from mine and often mutates. Essentially, this makes divide et impera & us versus them thinking even more stupid as we humans have "theory of mind" for a trait. Unlike many animals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind

Edit: So it's a cultural rather than biological precondition. ( If a precondition at all. )


I'd say both you and pdamoc are right :)

For us being able to develop and change Ego and Alter, we need to have the mental capability for doing so. Which we obviously have, physically.

Both Ego and Alter can and do change heavily through life, and thus are strongly affected by culture, socialization etc. They can't change unbridled, though: There are multiple facettes of personality that are pretty stable over time (like in the Big Five model), ignoring traumata etc. And there are limits to our mental capabilities, just like there are for reasoning and other aspects of mind.

So, within the pysical borders our bodies give us, Ego and Alter can develop quite freely, heavily mediated by culture.


Identity is the fast mecanism for trust. Where one declares being part of a group by segregating himself from other groups. Thus you can apply to him the aggregated history of his group and decide if you can trust him.

But.. you apply to them the history as you think this history is, and this might be very different to what they think it is. This is IMO a great source of conflict.

This is why I hate "-ism"/"-ists"-labels, because everyone seems to have a different opinion of what particular "-ism" words means. To use an example, Bernie Sanders' "socialism" is about sharing the wealth, meanwhile a lot of his opponents would argue because of the same word, it means he wants to install a Chinese-style dictatorship, or even worse, since it's a word that comes up in "Nazi", this style of fascism is also what Bernie wants.

If someone says they're a Black Live Matters supporter, depending on your leanings you might perceive them as wanting more social justice, or as a sympathizer of gangs that burned local businesses. I suppose, then you can decide whether you trust them or not. The problem is, they're probably not an anarchist that likes burning buildings, but your classification might have put them in that box in your mind, and since you disagree with anarchism (oh, look, another -ism), you conclude dialog with that person is impossible, just because they identified themselves as something...


I stopped identifying as atheist when I realized most religious people I encountered thought that meant I wanted to outlaw their religion. I inadvertently put myself in a box with people who were the main association folks had with that word.

Sometimes I want this effect so I can help change impressions. Like: furry and nonbinary. The goal then is to help bridge the gap between stereotype and the real human variety contained by those words.


> I stopped identifying as atheist when I realized most religious people I encountered thought that meant I wanted to outlaw their religion.

After thousands of years of exactly the reverse, that's rather rich, don't you think?

The vast majority of atheists would be perfectly happy to be left alone to their own devices. But in the United States at least, they are considered second-class citizens.

If someone is so biased that they become angry at the simple mention of a very abstract philosophical stance like atheism, is it really a good idea to placate them by pretending you are something else?


> If someone is so biased that they become angry at the simple mention of a very abstract philosophical stance like atheism, is it really a good idea to placate them by pretending you are something else?

I'm not sure what you mean by abstract here: does the idea of a very abstract philosophical stance that it has no (or little) effect on other people or the world?


I don't feel strongly one way or the other re: the truth of existence, so it didn't feel like I was the right person to defend the label.

There was no placation. I like effective communication. They accepted me well enough once I chose to really say who I was rather than lean on inaccurate labels.


absolutely. Conflicts are functional to segregation. It does not work without conflicts.

Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?

Sheer scale. There’s so many of us, and everyone is mostly replaceable. Not just in the economy, but in everything.

The identity is the one flag in the ground that screams ‘I stand for something’. I’m upset at myself and everyone for bringing back high school into our adult world. The book bags adorned with band stickers, the clothes, the cliques, all making it clear in a superficial way ‘this is who I am’. Like a generation of adult Goth kids - we fucking get it.

It just seems like we have to grow up, over and over.


I like to think you got to live as long as one of the Mesopotamian kings before you're really an adult, i.e. 10,000+ years.

> Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?

I think pg actually has another article (can't find it now) where he discusses hacking identity to ingrain positive behaviors. For example making "I'm a 3 workouts/week person" part of your identity. If that's you, skipping a day in the gym is a serious blow to your identity and self-image. It worked for me.


The paradox is that people seem to need a sense of identity. You can't have no identity. And there can be some sort of psychological satisfaction that comes from sharing an identity category with others.

>You can't have no identity.

True. But one can become less attached to their identity and learn to be more fluid and less rigid about it. Thinking in terms of what one does, rather than what they are, seems helpful to me.


To keep your identity small is probably akin to becoming a small Buddha.

Identity is even a dominant political trend in itself. "Identity politics".

I agree with the premise of the post. I just cannot see how it can be done. I think it's better to learn to accept differences gracefully rather than minimizing the identity surface. It's also my way to test people and communities. Try to disagree on something they consider basic. They way they'll treat you shows who they really are.


>I just cannot see how it can be done.

Learning to think and communicate in terms of what people and things do rather than labels, i.e. what they are, has been helpful for me.


This is a good explanation of the famous Carl Schmitt quote, which I didn't found intuitive at first:

“The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”


Maybe a major issue with politics in the current western view, is not that it is identity-based but that it is a large atomic decision. You either get everything from the Repuplicans/Conservatives/Right-wingish or everything from the Democrats/Labour/Socialist/Left-wingish.

It is much easier to identity as broadly one wing or the other, so I will tend to vote one way even if some of my party's policies are terrible and some of the oppositions are great.


Well put. And there are so many issues that it takes a lot of effort to even understand them all. So often you just say, well I care about / identify with my party on issues a, b, c so I vote for them. Issues x, y, z that I know little about I will support the party line because if my group says that is the way to go then that is the way to go.

Putting it in terms I’ve seen used in sales training, people proactively respond to fear rather than personal betterment.

From a sales perspective it becomes phrasing: “This will cost you $5,000 over the next 3 years if you don’t buy.”

Vs “You will save $5,000...”

People purchase something like 60% more often when using the fear inducing “cost you” phrasing.

From a political standpoint, everything is driven by creating fear of the other party.

Did you know that Republicans are all racist bigots who want you to be poor?

Did you know that Democrats are all lazy, naive communists who want to control everyone’s lives and will bankrupt the entire country while taking away your guns so you can’t protect your family?

Did you know Libertarians are all anarchists who want complete every man for himself chaos with no roads?

It’s always “fear of other” marketing.


>Why are people seemingly so drawn to identifying themselves as anything at all?

IMO, not enough meditation or psychedelic use.

On his podcast sometime this year, Sam Harris said something to the effect of "Why am I so sure that we are capable of moving past these politics of identity? That one does not have to so strongly, or at all, identify with their gender or race or country? Because I know that one does not even have to identify with the face that stares back at them in the mirror."

This is a large part of the benefits of meditation and psychedelic use. The dissolution of the ego, the relinquishment of the seemingly strictly intertwined brain and body, the expansion of the consciousness beyond the self. Whether these experiences are actual reality or simply temporary perceptual illusions is somewhat immaterial to the benefits gained - namely a much more zen and less identity fraught mental modus operandi.


From my own experiences with meditation and - strangely - doing stand-up comedy as a hobby, this is very true, although I don't have experience with psychedelics.

I have a slightly different view of ego though. For me ego is a tool that no doubt had some evolutionary purpose. When my "ego is pumped" I tend to be highly active, motivated, confident and able to solve problems (or hunt for food in evolutionary terms) but once those problems are solved, the ego can be discarded for a time.

From doing stand-up comedy, when you "bomb" (the audience doesn't laugh) it's extremely traumatic for the ego. I look at it now that afterwards I need to "reboot my ego" and in doing so, some ideas or things that I saw as part of my identity get discarded in the process. At this point, having bombed quite a few times, it feels like an accelerated learning process and it becomes less traumatic the less invested I am in my identity.

Meanwhile - connected to the article - what's interesting to me is I think most people have a "tell" (poker term) when they are over-invested in some identity or idea, and that's when they say "I believe X" or "I believe Y". In my experience that's an indicator that they have accepted some conclusion or point of view, without having examined all the evidence that makes the conclusion valid. I think we'd do better with encouraging people to say "I don't know" more often than "I believe" e.g. "What happens after we die?" ... "I don't know" seems better than "I believe we go to Heaven"


I agree on the help of meditation and maybe psychedelics to reflect on yourself and reach some consciousness.

"Because I know that one does not even have to identify with the face that stares back at them in the mirror"

But in my experience, this would be the point, where psychonauts start loosing the connection to physical reality.

Because sure, my face is not my identity. But it reflects very strongly my physical identity/reality. So if your mind does not make a connection with the face it sees in the mirror, then I would start to worry, as then your mind and body is already quite seperated.


It’s easy to pretend your physical characteristics don’t matter when people don’t discriminate against you based on them.

And yet, here's you doing it to him - discounting the argument based on his physical appearance. A truly brilliant way of disproving your own point.

I don’t think you comprehended my comment. It had nothing to do with op’s physical appearance. Try rereading that with the lens of “you” not referring to the op but instead a person trying to follow this guidance as a minority in a super oppressive location.

It's about learning to not automatically do that to others.

Just replace psychedelics with stoner music (or whatever makes you stay in trance), you dont need to use always substances.

Writing helps sometimes, specially at late night when you begin to lose taboos and feel more talk-ative.


> No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that.

I think that was a better example in 2009.


The sentence that strikes me as the essence of the essay:

"More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants."

Is that true? I really don't think it is. I could definitely have a fruitful (as precise as that can be) conversation with a Christian about religion or a "proud Black man" about race in America. Or even learn a thing or two about programming from a lisp evangelist...

I liked this essay at first, but when I read it more critically it doesn't hold up. It at first seemed to preach non-attachment. Now I feel like it's just an excuse for me to tune you out whenever I decide your identity has been engaged by the topic.


I think the amount of truth in that statement is "it depends". I've found that having conversations about certain controversial topics is can be unproductive unless you're talking to someone you know fairly well, and both parties are willing to listen with an open mind. When someone you don't know well says something that goes against your idea of common sense, it's easy to dismiss them as an out-group idiot. When it's someone you've known for years, who you know to be thoughtful about their beliefs, it's harder to dismiss them out of hand.

This is anecdotal, but I've also found that people who bring up those sorts of identity issues when you don't know them well aren't usually looking to engage with someone who disagrees. They're looking to see if you belong to the same tribe. If you do, it's an opportunity to bond.


It depends on what you mean by "fruitful discussion". If you are willing to listen to a person expound on their identity, and accept uncritically whatever they say, then most people will happily talk your ear off about it.

If you care to question any aspect of something that comprises part of someone's identity, then it can easily be perceived as a personal attack on that individual, and discussions where one person believes they are being personally insulted by the other are rarely fruitful.


> If you care to question any aspect of something that comprises part of someone's identity, then it can easily be perceived as a personal attack on that individual

I don't think it's healthy conversation to "question" what someone [you have just met] is saying in any circumstances.

Questioning without having a developed background and context is a polite way of calling them a liar, isn't it?

"Oh, I haven't experienced that" is less confrontational - you are not expected to have experienced it if you don't hold the same identity.


A discussion does not have to mean you are only talking about things you have personally experienced. It might mean things that you think should or shouldn’t happen in the future or implications about what is happening in the broader world based on your personal experiences or beliefs.

If the conclusions someone draws for one of these things are based on what they consider their identity, they may be very resistant to hear any contrary opinions.

A healthy (or fruitful) discussion should have room for reasonable disagreement about the meanings and implications of what one has personally experienced. You need not deny the reality of someone’s experience to draw a different conclusion from it than they do.


Indeed, in fact, I think it might be better to have as large an identity as possible, so that the group you associate with most includes all the people you're talking to. Getting all of nature into your 'in-group' is likely to the best way to hack your visceral ethical system into something approaching an actually ethical one.

Yes, it's hard to challenge things you think are core to your identity, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, and it's easier to do so if you're surrounded by people you know will care about you which ever identity you choose.


> "More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants."

> Is that true?

I don't think so, but it approaches a truth. You can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any two or more of the participants in areas where they have fundamental and intractable conflict.

But even this requires a very specific definition of “engage”. Its not just a matter of having overlap with content of the identity, but provoking a defensive, identity-based response. There are people who can converse around identity-related issues without their identity being engaged.


I guess I would ask a hypothetical-pg to define his idea of a "fruitful" discussion. I'll trust that he (and other VCs) would share my belief in the collective-objectivity of subjective human realities and aren't just having discussions on how to make as much money as possible :)

I agree to some extend with your comment. I think stance and open-mind is more important, it’s not for naught one of the rules here is “curious conversation”.

Or as this Bertrand Russel quote : “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.”


The presence or absence of good faith in the person with whom you are engaged I think makes the biggest difference.

"As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?"

Has Paul never actually read HN or any JS discussion online? Or any forum, really?

Case study: my wife, who enjoys spinning wool, watched a (metaphorical) knock-down, drag-out argument about sheep variations on a spinning forum. Just before a user was banned, it had devolved into some very creative swearing and threats to kill sheep in another poster's geographic area.


> “As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?”

> Has Paul never actually read HN or any JS discussion online? Or any forum, really?

Yeah, this is one of those things that I cannot imagine anyone having sufficient experience with religious discussions online to make the initial observation also having so little experience with discussing literally anything else online to suggest that it was somehow unique to religion.

I mean, there's a reason Godwin's Law is scoped to online discussions generally, not any particular subject matter.


Usually attributed to academia but applicable to any situation where people personally identify with very specific aspects of the community:

The reason the in-fighting is so viscous is because the stakes are so low.

When you're on the outside it seems very trivial; when you're on the inside it's the most important thing in your world.


I reached a similar conclusion after lurking on subreddits of opposite political leaning. I favored the views of one subreddit over another (naturally). Over time, I found that I was blindly believing the comments in my favored subreddit over the other one, only to find that the comments were false or citing unreliable sources. I saw this happen several times, until I stopped lurking on both of the subreddits. I guess it's better to keep your identity small ...

Or distrust factual claims by people on Reddit until/unless you track things back to primary sources that you can review. Same goes for traditional news.

Primary seems a little extreme, and looking at primary sources in isolation can often be misleading. I think secondary sources (or even tertiary sources) are much more important when it comes to evaluating claims on the internet.

Strongly disagree. Secondary sources are more likely to introduce statistical artifacts, weird biases or cherry-picking, which are often hard to detect even for experts. We don't look at primary sources nearly as much we should.

The only exception is for claims so dumb ("the time complexity of mergesort is O(n), the earth is flat, 1+1=5") that anything at all directly contradicts them.


It's not extreme at all. I don't think that's the only thing a person should consider, but it has to be part of the picture. Secondary sources can have their own agenda. Also the simple fact that they have to choose what to include from the primary source means you don't get a complete picture. Even somewhat responsible scientific reporting falls into this trap: They may successfully report that something has a correlation, avoid implying a strong causal link, but then fall flat on their face by failing to realize that it was a low-powered study with very few participants.

Tertiary sources are often reporting on secondary sources: The NYT reports on something that WaPo reports on. Any mistakes or biases present in the secondary source may be amplified & added to. I never read reporting about someone else's reporting without seeking out that first reports. At best, tertiary sources should be taken as commentary/opinion/interpretation.

Non-primary sources are for when you want something explained to you in non-jargon terms or a TL;DR, or you want an expert's opinion on the primary sources etc. A medical study comes out about hear disease, and you want a cardiologist's assessment of the study. Even then, you need to understand who the cardiologist is. The average cardiologist may not be a great source: There are levels of expertise within any community, and I want someone who is at the top of the field. I don't want the average cardiologist's opinion.

The problem is that no one has time to track down primary sources for everything they read/see/hear, or the level of knowledge to evaluate it. I'm fascinated by quantum computing, but I have no chance of understanding primary source research there. I have no choice but to rely on a secondary source or, if possible, the researchers themselves giving a higher level TL;DR.

My rule of thumb is that, absent prior knowledge of bias/agenda/ill-intent, I skeptically take what people say at face value but don't accept it into my own views/opinions/etc unless I've done some digging of my own. If I'm not capable (e.g. quantum physics) of doing that, I simply try harder to get a variety of expert opinions, and avoid presenting anything I say/think as anything other than an outsider's imperfect understanding.


I actually verified the sources myself when somebody replied to the false comments.

Politics are _meant_ to be understood by the common person, especially in the US. The Declaration of Independence and the Consitution were intended to be understood by regular people. This is so that there wouldn't be a political class, who believes the common person needs to be ruled.

Too bad we have that political class, anyway, along with regular people who believe politics should be inaccessible to regular people.


> The Declaration of Independence and the Consitution were intended to be understood by regular people. This is so that there wouldn't be a political class, who believes the common person needs to be ruled.

This is simply factually untrue. The Articles of Confederation, and Constitution were written by and for the political class, and each addressed the immediate concerns of the political class (much narrower than the also narrow enfranchised class) at the time it was drafted and in the domain to which it was addressed. The Declaration was drafted by and for the needs of the same class but tangentially directed at the public in the US as a propaganda document, but it was even more directed at the British political class to create pressure for an immediate accommodation of the American political class (a task at which therr are some signs it might have succeeded had events on the ground not spiralled out of control as quickly as they did.)


Yet, three of the founders wrote the Federalist Papers, which were distributed in newpaper form to people of New York.

> Yet, three of the founders wrote the Federalist Papers, which were distributed in newpaper form to people of New York.

The existence of a massive political propaganda effort to sell the document to the enfranchised class of a particular state (broader than the elite political class but narrower than regular people) does not prove (indeed, if anything argues against the conclusion) that the document itself was intended to be understandable too and responsive to the interests of even the enfranchised class, much less regular people.


> regular people

You're skipping over the fact that only property owning white men were initially allowed to vote.

That was the group which expected to gain political power from the Declaration and Constitution - that was the target audience.

Defining "regular people" has a fraught history in the USA.


People committed evil actions 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, and people unfortunately commit evil actions today. None of that changes who should be able to understand and engage in politics. In fact that is an argument that politics should be accessible to all. That way we can guard against an evil cabal of a ruling class that oppresess everyone but themselves.

You've changed the discussion from the intended simplicity of politics to an argument about who was allowed to vote. In some ways, this type of strawman is similar to the types of arguments that create difficulties and barriers with present day politics.


> You've changed the discussion from the intended simplicity of politics to an argument about who was allowed to vote.

I was disagreeing directly with your point that this was intended to be simple, or for "regular people". I contend that it wasn't any of this - it was intended to enrich a room-full of people with the support of wealthy elites. The immediate effect was to shift power only slightly, and not in the direction of regular people. How is that a strawman, please?

From Wikipedia: "The language of the concluding endorsement... was made intentionally ambiguous in hopes of winning over the votes of dissenting delegates" - the exact opposite of your claim.

> this type of strawman is similar to the types of arguments that create difficulties and barriers with present day politics.

Ironic.


> From Wikipedia: "The language of the concluding endorsement... was made intentionally ambiguous in hopes of winning over the votes of dissenting delegates" - the exact opposite of your claim.

You are pretending that the endorsement actually had anything to do with the text of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. I assume the endorsement you are plucking a reference to is, "Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present". You didn't mention it, so your statement isn't clear.

Thanks for your time, but I have no interest in discussing side arguments further and further from my point about politics being simple, where anyone can be involved.


The point is that you are trying to claim that they wanted to keep politics accessible to all but somehow despite their best efforts a political class emerged.

Yet they didn't provide for direct democracy, enfranchised only part of the population, took the highest political offices for themselves, ect. Look at the first 5 presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. These were not some common guys off the street. These were the political elites of Colonial England and then early America.


It probably has a fraught history everywhere.

As far as I can tell, both the "political class" and the regular people aren't very good at understanding or productively participating in politics. The only decent and thoughtful political discussions I've ever seen have come from philosophers. Which perhaps could be considered an "elite" class, too, but IMO there's zero economic or status hierarchy that serves as a barrier to entry, unlike being a politician.

Can you name a poor philosopher?

If anything, the barriers appear to me to be greater.


If you want to be an academic philosopher, you probably need money. But, in my opinion, anyone can be a philosopher, regardless of class, wealth, education level, credentials, etc.

> Can you name a poor philosopher?

Diogenes.


If we must go back 2400 years, "his father minted coins for a living" doesn't really make it sound like he came from a deprived background.

You just changed the goalposts! You said a poor philosopher, not a philosopher whose parents were also poor!

The wealthy landowner leading the revolutionary army became king, erm I mean president, after winning the war. The guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence became ruler a short time after him. They could have decided against being rulers, but they didn't.

To the rest of the HN community, note that they did decide against being rulers, nor did they ever act as kings.

See George Washington's retirement speech:

https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=15&page...

That's why we have a tradition of presidents only serving a maximum of two terms; which we only turned into a law when the tradition was violated.


> That's why

What's why? I skimmed that link, couldn't see a reference to two terms, maybe I missed it.

Maybe this is close to the truth:

"Surprisingly, many of the Framers—including [Alexander] Hamilton and [James] Madison—supported a lifetime appointment for presidents selected by Congress and not elected by the people,” the [National Constitution Center] writes. “That would have made the presidency what Virginia’s George Mason called an ‘elective monarchy,’ however, and when this was put to a vote it failed by only six votes to four."

Instead, they devised a complicated voting system involving the electoral college that would still ensure, as the framers desired, that presidential elections were not solely in the hands of ordinary voters. Within this system, they shortened a president’s appointment from life to four years. And because most of the framers didn’t want to set a limit on how many four-year terms a president could serve, they didn’t say anything about it in the Constitution.

Nevertheless, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson ended up setting a two-term precedent. Washington declined to run a third time, but did clarify that he would’ve if he felt he was needed. Jefferson, on the other hand, specifically thought that two terms was enough for one person, and that more might overextend executive power. After these presidents, two terms became the unofficial standard.

That is, until FDR broke tradition by winning elections in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944.

https://www.history.com/news/why-presidents-have-term-limits


You are seriously trying to claim George Washington was not a ruler? Sure he wasn't an absolute monarch and he did retire after 8 years. But he was president and the president is a ruler who has a lot in common with a constitutional monarch. One example, King George signed bills of Parliament into law, President Washington signed bills of Congress into law.

Good illustration of keeping identity small. No discussion, just blanket dismissals and drive by downvotes. Usually this site is better.

Your historical summary leaves out quite a bit of actual information in order to simplify and provide a one-sided explanation. Too bad I won't fall for arguing about your soundbites.

Please don't leave a comment if you can't do better than this—it breaks a lot of the guidelines. Regardless of what the other guy said.

I'll graciously accept that as a good point. Thanks!

Thank you. Dang said something similar to me once, I got it from him. :-) and that being on HN is a continual lesson in not replying when feeling triggered. Anyway, some comments don't merit a reply, and are best left hanging there, wheels spinning.

Your historical summary leaves out quite a bit of actual information in order to simplify and provide a one-sided explanation. Too bad I got sucked into arguing with you when you obviously have the founding fathers as part of your identity and aren't open to discussing it.

I think one of the things that hasn't aged well is this:

> There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost.

Well sure, how much a new government policy will cost does have an answer. It's not knowable before you implemenent the policy. I bet you there's someone in this thread that will argue, with facts, that a $15 minimum wage will boost the economy and increase tax revenue. I bet there's someone who can argue the reverse. I bet both sides will be able to cite both partisan and "non-partisan" organisations to back up their argument.

I'm not sure what PG was saying there was true in 2009 (post Obamacare) but certainly it doesn't hold up now.

I also don't think that intransigent discussion on the issue would be the result of threatening identities, but instead based on people's values and assumptions about human nature which largely cannot be definitively proven right or wing.

This translates into code too - there are people I'm not going to argue with about their code, because I value simplicity and velocity in development whilst they're far more interested in optimizing every single line to the nth degree. I think what they're doing is bad engineering, but I'm not going to change their value system.


Or we could find ways to promote civil discourse. Avoiding conversation about difficult topics we disagree about doesn't seem like a very good idea. Society still has to deal with these things. You can't avoid personal beliefs involved in navigating the politics that run a country. Learning to have productive discussions about that and similar scenarios is a learned skill.

Heck, while HN is by no means perfect, the ability of people here an HN to do just that is what makes HN a step above many other online forums. This stuff isn't impossible, it's just not easy. On HN it takes awareness of and reminders about the community norms. People point out in replies that a parent post did not need to shift it's tone a certain way or level a personal attack. I frequently see posts voted down that express opinions that I know plenty of HN'ers agree with because their method of expression was disruptive to productive conversation. I'm as likely to downvote such comments as I am to upvote well reasoned comments that express something I disagree with.

I make mistakes on it too, and have been called out. I take a step back, consider it, and if the accusation fits then I apologize and resolve to do better. It's a group effort.


When I went to high school, I remember having to take philosophy schools, and we went into the art of debate, etc. How to argue about different viewpoints without getting emotional, respecting your opponent, proper protocol for discussion.

Liberal values used to mean being tolerant of different view points, being open minded, being kind, respectful, and being aware of the dangers of censorship. We were given banned books to read (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird). It makes me sad that, as a society, we seem to be losing such values.


We need to extend charity of the argument to charity of the argumenter. Surely there's a reason they feel the way they do. The upshot is having some thought for the consequences for the person you're arguing with if they're wrong.

I believe it's reasonable for someone to hold to what they already know regardless of arguments to the contrary if the consequences of accepting the argument seem unacceptable.


My favorite illustration of small identity is the feud between Rene Descartes and Pierre de Fermat http://www.erclosetphysics.com/2017/08/what-is-fermats-last-...

At the time Descartes was a prominent mathematician of his time with significant following, heavily invested into his reputation and status.

After a certain dispute, where Fermat shed doubt on a work by Descartes, the prominent mathematician grew annoyed and tried to discredit Fermat. The only problem was Fermat's disinterest in his status - how exactly does one destroy a reputation of a provincial clerk and father of eight, who does math as a hobby?


You might not always have control over what identities you’re attributed to.

For example if you are an immigrant, based on your home country, you may have an identity assigned to you by the destination society even if it isn’t factual. You might ignore it and remind yourself not to care too much about it (try to keep your identity small) but when you have a harder time finding an apartment even when you’re qualified compared to a local, you won’t be able to ignore it anymore. Or if you support a certain president because of economic policy you’re assumed to be racist by some other group of people who might start to treat you like one.

You don’t always have the luxury and I think this is a big point missing from the article.


To be fair, that's a rather large topic. Not to mention one that PG wouldn't be terribly qualified to answer I don't think.

How do you go about your life knowing that some sizable portion of it identifies you in a way that affects you negatively?

In a minor way I've struggled with this myself over the past few years. Best advice I've come across is to use the stoic dichotomy of control guide me: Some things are in our control, other things are not. Focus on those things you can control. Pay no heed to those you can't. If something seems like a mix of both it can be further broken down into those two.


You don't have to ignore these things. You can acknowledge that they are real and affect you personally, but keep your identity and opinions separate from that. It's the difference between "immigrants tend to have a hard time" vs "white people are trash", or giving preferential treatment to your fellow countryman at work because "it's us against the world".

> You can acknowledge that they are real and affect you personally, but keep your identity and opinions separate from that

I think this is a good way to deal with the issue; they shouldn't be ignored. However it's challenging as you mentioned there are differences. It is not even feasible to merely ignore them if they happen to you and that's exactly my point here. You cannot presumably ignore them and "keep it small" as easily as the author suggests.


Supporting a political candidate is not, in any possible way "similar" to being an immigrant or a child of immigrant parents, as a social identity.

Through my societal lense (as a grandchild of four immigrants) I view similarities, in that: their immigration was a deliberate and drastic choice, one made in response to the perceived inability to influence some desired political change. Often immigration is a follow-up choice due to fear or repricussions from the choice to support a desired political candidate (think political refugees). That being said, people don't typically get to choose the one(s) who parent them.

Edit: I say this as someone who greatly values a culture where social identies are self selected (or nor ;-) as well as mutable.


Of course it's not, and I agree. My intention was to use two different examples to demonstrate that regardless of your background, you might "take on" an identity which you didn't choose and thus cannot "keep it small" as easy as PG suggests.

And even if you do choose your identity, you seldom have the luxury of choosing whether it is controversial or not.

PG has spent the majority of his adult life promoting the "hacker" identity and forming communities for such people. A bit rich for him to tell others to put their identity back into their box because strongly believing in the merits of a particular religious belief, political cause or cultural identity turns out to create more conflict than strongly believing in solving problems with software


> Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

I'd suggest another guideline: keep your claims falsifiable.

The most heated online discussions I've witnessed have been around non-falsifiable claims. These discussions may offer an adrenaline rush for the participant, but not much else. Minds don't change in these discussions. Quite the opposite.

However, topics like religion are noteworthy in that none of the claims are falsifiable. Lots of political discussions (the more heated kind especially) deal in non-falsifiable claims.

PG suggests that such discussions can't happen around technical topics (JavaScript, baking?). I think there's evidence to the contrary on HN not to mention many other discussion forums.


I think there is a similarity between both statements. The issue as I see it comes when people have strong opinions not based in commonly agreed upon facts.

So what we end up having is person A saying "we should get rid of ABC, it causes XYZ!", and person B says "ABC is amazing! Everyone should have ABC! The XYZ claim is overblown conspiracy", both opinions are very strong. But they don't agree on whether ABC causes XYZ. Before an intelligent conversation happens, the basis in fact has to be agreed upon.

This is basically impossible with non-falsifiable claims. But non-falsifiable claims generally means "there is no evidence for it". Because if a claim relies on evidence, then it is by default falsifiable. Show the evidence is wrong, and the claim disappears.

If there is no evidence... they didn't come to their beliefs through evidence. They came through some other means. Find out THOSE reasons, and you can have a fruitful discussion.

I've had plenty of fruitful discussions about politics just as I have about religion. The key in both cases is finding that reasoning. In both cases that reasoning is almost never the topic at hand. Don't start a political conversation with slavery. Start it with... idk... maybe what news outlets they pay attention to.


> What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it.

This is largely a consequence of the Protestant ecclesiology that dominates Anglo-Saxon culture, which in turn dominates online discourse.


Since we're digging up old notes on the topic, this George Orwell classic deals with (IMO) a similar them.

It's a surprisingly difficult topic to deal with in discreet analytical terms, so I suggest avoiding disagreeing with definitional points and looking to the wider picture. Don't quibble, fix it instead.

NOTES ON NATIONALISM https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwel...


I really like the reasoning here, but a word of warning: It’s a lonely road and in some cases a life threatening one.

While I’m center-left, I've found it extremely important to be a social gadfly as I’ve become older.

Challenge the assumptions and things we hold sacred, because there are often disturbing contradictions and conclusions lurking; and we don’t really know much at all.

As the author implied, there isn’t a way to punch a hole through the emotional investment.

It brings out the absolute worst in otherwise extremely intelligent people. Absolutely visceral reactions.


Previous threads:

Keep your Identity Small (2009) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16454591 - Feb 2018 (110 comments)

Keep your identity small (2009) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11732970 - May 2016 (153 comments)

Keep Your Identity Small (2009) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6171790 - Aug 2013 (90 comments)

Keep Your Identity Small - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=471660 - Feb 2009 (253 comments)


It is 2021. I am managing several identities across several sites. Some are semi-anonymous (Reddit, Twitter, Bitclout), some are real-name profiles (LinkedIn, Github, HN).

I don't think its a problem of one's own identify but rather the role one plays with it's own motivations in that given context.

Also, there are now so many bot accounts that many times I am wondering if the discussing is happening with a real person.


You need to think about the future.

You have no idea how someone might misinterpret something you said, or believe in.

It could be a future employer, client, divorce lawyer, Lawyer collecting a judgment, business partner, investor, future friend, nosey neighbor wondering in you have a permit, disgruntled former lover, etc.

If you are a rich guy like PG, it really doesn't matter what you put out there, but for guys like myself; I stay anonymous.

I think what PG is saying will be more important in the future.


>And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

the thing is, that those people speaking from identity have an actual experience with the topic - biased or not.

so you may not want to exclude them, so I guess the solution is - get mature participants?

examples: If I received 1 cent for every read that .NET is Windows only in last 2 years I'd have like 4 cents.

I've always liked "holy wars" between Java and C# because those were often between people who were deeply into their stack and you could learn a lot.


From 'Immortality' by Milan Kundera:

"In our world...it is difficult for the individual to reinforce the individuality of the self...There are two methods for cultivating the uniqueness of the self: ...addition ...and subtraction. .... Let me put it another way: a mere love for showers can become an attribute of the self only on condition that we let the world know we are ready to fight for it." (Part 3 > Addition and subtraction - Pages 111, 113; Faber & Faber edition, 1991)

If you find Kundera's words make sense, then while PG may be logically correct, the impulse to add to identity is rooted in our own pride. It will not be easily beat: 'the sin of pride' (nowadays called egotism) is a strong, persistent force, that we have always struggled to hold in check, but has followed Man as closely as a shadow - which it may be said to be. It could even be seen as a shadow in the sense used in a 'Wizard of Earthsea', where the shadow is a threat, with its own intent.


Very relevant, even 12 years later. There seems to be many more spaces where we add to our identity today.

Of course the unmentioned corollary to "keeping your identity small" is that you must want to make everything ground for an argument. Keep your identity proportionate to how much you want to argue about your identity.

Or, you know, go the other way and make your identity as big as possible. Identify with all humanity, all life, the whole universe. I mean it's probably closer to the truth than any other story we might tell ourselves?

There's a spiritual truth here, letting go of ego - I think the world would benefit more from it than just about anything else right now.

Not only by reducing pointless religious and political flame wars, but also the vast amount of anxiety and depression based around identity (whether my identity is good enough), social distrust and antagonism from identifying as this group vs that group, etc.

Not an easy path, and these ideas have been around for 3000 years without seemingly making much impact in society at large - but one can hope :)


I think learning to gray rock my way through interactions with angry narcissists helped me here. It turns out people who are angry about something expect a certain reaction to their rage, and that rage deflates fast when you don't follow the same script. Ego depression isn't quite the same as getting rid of ego, but it has the same effect.

> people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

That is definitely not true. Say, I identify as male. It's a part of my identity. Not only can I discuss it in a civilized way, I'm also curious to learn and discover how the concept of masculinity evolved over the ages, how the society conditions males into their roles and so on. It's not identity that counts here but openness to explore and learn.


> There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost.

I definitely disagree. Sure, you can have an estimation of how much the new bureaucracy will cost in the short run, but you can never predict the second-order effects with certainty and disagreement about these is usually the actual conflict. The discussion is easier on some issues than others, sure, but I don't think you can predict any with any reasonable certainty.


Absolutely! Spending policies are often sold as cost cutting policies (spend $1 to get back $1.15).

It can get even more complicated when your new policy leads to large projects, many large, multi-year projects have certain assumptions baked into them which can turn out to be wrong. Years ago I was a minor participant in a root cause analysis for a government program that lasted 10 years and went way over budget. Our biggest finding was that the assumptions made when budgeting this project turned out to be incorrect and far too optimistic. These assumptions were actually fairly reasonable at the time they were made though.


> Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

I talk it he has not ever participated in Javascript or baking discussions.

It turns out that discussions have often nothing to do with identity, and a lot with depth of knowledge and depth of conviction. Shallow knowledge & deep convictions are what leads to disaster.

Maybe it's not labels, but the desire to position yourself as an expert, even if you don't really understand the problem.


I don’t want anyone for a second to believe we are any different.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lin’d, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The genesis of imposter syndrome. I am the role that I play, and if not, than what am I.

It’s a odd thing to realize that these simple digital avatars tech created would be the Roman/Greek/Egyptian god we pray to. At the altar of ourselves.

Edit: Good post by PG, he’s getting more in touch with what’s wrong.


> The genesis of imposter syndrome. I am the role that I play, and if not, than what am I.

“You will never be able to reach your full potential until you first confront your deep-seated fear of success! Now get into the bag.”


I noticed this particularly strongly while discussing Chinese politics with Chinese exchange students. If I told them "in my country, we differentiate between the state and the people", then it became actually possible to discuss their political party and its actions with them. Otherwise it immediately turned into a shouting match "but muh diaoyu islaaaands..!"

I’m confounded by the advice to avoid conflict by restricting one’s identity. By all means, don’t conflate your preference with your identity. But this is an awful way to address people whose actual experienced identity is needlessly a source of conflict.

I spent most of my life shielding myself from admitting I’m queer, and nearly all of it shielding myself from admitting I’m non-binary and admitting I’m autistic, using this logic.

That didn’t prevent conflict, it just made it harder for me to navigate and almost certainly harder for people who mean well toward me to navigate as well.

My identity keeps growing and it only gets better for me and the people I keep in my life.


This isn’t about the big stuff. Queer, non-binary, autistic is a small fraction of your identity. Hell any major allergies should make the cut.

It’s the small stuff like considering yourself a Pepsi drinker that causes needless conflict. People buying bandaids have preferences, but it’s not something you’re going to argue about on the internet in all caps.


I disagree. Those things seem big when you first discover them -- there's really nice feeling that comes with finding them out. "Ohhh, I'm X, so that explains why I have preference Y". But some people try too hard, to hang onto the euphoria that came with that discovery. They identify with that experience, and center their lives around it, and group together with others who do the same. They are often threatened by others who identify in the same way, but have a very different experience or who choose not to wrap their lives around it. I think that's what's getting called out in this essay.

I saw a jokey-serious "transition timeline" photo set where it started with elaborate, carefully done outfits that would put Natalie Wynn's best to shame, then ended with something like "passed out drunk at 3am in a pile of unwashed bras"

You wouldn't know I'm nonbinary from looking at me because I look like any dude walking around with clothes plucked out of the closet at random. Presentation is just not a huge part of the identity to me, even though the stereotype is that presentation is everything.


Hey, I mostly decided I didn’t have more energy for this thread than I already devoted. But I appreciate your response and you, and wanted you to know I feel very similarly.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t had my fair share of exploring non-gender-norm presentation. It just doesn’t matter that much to me other than what feels good for me at the time.

To a stranger’s eye, I present he/him. I have a big beard and a shaved head, im tall with broad shoulders. And I’m not at all motivated to challenge that perception (to the point my preferred pronouns are he/him/they/them and when I came out NB to friends and family I made it clear I don’t expect to be addressed differently).

What was important for me was acknowledging that I never felt any attachment to that he/him perception, except the painful part of navigating other people’s expectations not matching my reality.


> Queer, non-binary, autistic is a small fraction of your identity.

I don't even know how to take this seriously. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt if you want to clarify, as it seems like you don't want to minimize the big stuff, but... this feels like that.

- - -

Edit: it’s entirely possible people who don’t identify with these just don’t understand how huge they are for people who do. Which is part of what I found so offputting in the article’s examples.

It’s also possible I really substantively don’t understand what is “identity” to you or anyone else who thinks these are small or not aspects of identity.

If that’s the case, I’m having trouble filling in the blanks. Name? Family lineage? Job title? Work history? Relationship status?


Note the contradiction of big things and small part.

Importance isn’t the same thing as taking up a large fraction of your identity. Suppose you wrote an autobiography, the big stuff like age, religion, or sexual orientation are shared with millions of people. They have huge impacts, but the details are going to be stuff like past partners not simply repeating “I am Bi” for hundreds of pages.

Height is a great example, being 7’ tall, 4’, or even 5’ 10” all impact on every moment of your life. The language(s) you speak, the county you live in, having or not having every significant disease or disability. Education is another big one being a Dr. or a high school dropout again makes a huge difference but again isn’t on it’s own what separates you from everyone else.


I tried to write a response to you this morning and bailed on it because this conversation has been exhausting.

You’re taking important/big to you and projecting it on me. You’re insisting that the things about my identity that I consider big are small.

I could almost understand if you don’t fully appreciate the impact of discovering one’s sexuality and gender feels like. But you’ve included autism as small, and that suggests either you’re really ignorant of what that entails or, like so many other “big” things you listed you just don’t see how they intersect?

Either way it feels dismissive as hell. What’s small to you isn’t to me. If that doesn’t speak to identity than what does?


It’s literally small in the information compression sense.

Storing the pattern of your palm print takes up more space than a listing most peoples current bank account balances. People generally care a lot more about bank accounts than palm prints, but that doesn’t mean they take up a lot of space. As such palm prints are literally a larger part of your identity than your bank account balance.


> It’s literally small in the information compression sense.

How so? Your example doesn’t make this clear as I can’t relate those things to the actual parts of my identity you’re addressing.

Tell me more detail about how small my queerness, NBness and neurodivergence are.


You just described your queerness in 1 word, so that’s ~20 bits of information. Having also summed up the other 2 conditions in a single world call it’s at most ~60 bits of information to describe all 3.

Except not every word fits into sexual identity. If you where listing every person on earth let’s be generous and call it 10,000 options for sexual identity or ~15 bits of information.


Quoting myself in my first comment on this thread:

> I spent most of my life shielding myself from admitting I’m queer, and nearly all of it shielding myself from admitting I’m non-binary and admitting I’m autistic, using this logic.

You really think there isn’t more to shape me, to who I am and what shaped and continues to me, than what I described here? You really think the kinds of pain I described in responses from the process that led to these recognitions about myself are low information?

You’re talking to me like my life and my self is distilled down to the words I’ve written in a HN comment thread.

Honestly this isn’t worth my time. Go dismiss yourself.


I think the central idea is to not attach identity to unimportant facets. I agree the comment as written has issues, but think the summary is good advice.

Not GP, but I think they meant big fraction and mistakenly wrote small fraction. At least that’s the only way their comment makes sense to me.

This. Obviously Coke is superior but 'Retric is on point with this. You can agree to disagree and move on with your lives. Sometimes Pepsi is all you have. Accept it. Spend energy on more productive things.

I think the advice is about not getting offended by differences in opinions about stuff you don't have to care about much.

This is not an advice to hide the key elements of your identity. Instead, it's an advice to concentrate on them, and protect them with the energy you saved by not wasting it on petty issues.


> This is not an advice to hide the key elements of your identity. Instead, it's an advice to concentrate on them, and protect them with the energy you saved by not wasting it on petty issues.

It led with two aspects that people almost universally identify deeply with, both of which are matters of life and death (politics by the subject matter involved and sometimes affiliation, religion even more times by affiliation) and whole moral constructs for life and afterlife. Those are not petty, they're just easily dismissed by people who can address or dismiss them casually.


You can acknowledge your preferences without making them your identity, though. E.g. you can admit to yourself that you are attracted to a variety of genders without thinking of yourself as being queer.

No, I can’t. Thinking I could and trying to caused me a lot of pain. I am queer. It’s as much an immutable facet of who and what I am as my neurodivergence, or my right-handedness. It shapes me beyond preference in similar ways to those. Why shouldn’t it? If it makes my life better to recognize who I am, why discourage that? Is it harming you or anyone?

> If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

I can respect that "all other things being equal" does not hold here. There are always tradeoffs. But there are real benefits to not identifying with things (as the essay discusses).


I think what makes me really uncomfortable about this whole discussion, the article and the interaction in the comments, is it’s being discussed like my identity is some dispassionate academic subject, rather than my living experience that isn’t up for debate.

I’m not asking you to respect whether something in some article addresses my identity. I’m telling you I know what it is.

It’s not a balance of tradeoffs. It’s not available for scrutiny by an essay by Paul, or comments from you or anyone.

My contention with the article was that giving myself permission to let my identity expand to include things I hadn’t helped me begin to reckon with the pain of keeping my identity minimal, denying really important things about myself and hurting in the process.

The majority of the responses I’ve gotten have suggested that I should not let those be a part of my identity or have minimized their importance.

I cannot understand why. Why is it in your interest or anyone’s to tell me whether being queer, or non-binary, or autistic should not factor into who I am? Why do you or anyone get to decide whether any of those things should be important parts of me?

Why is it anyone’s business but my own? The only “conflict” here has been people scrutinizing the validity of my identity as I express it.


> Why is it in your interest

Because a society where we can have less partisan opinions and more fruitful discussions is a better one.

But I'm not attacking you, and I don't think most of the other commenters are, either. You expressed a disagreement with its thesis and explained how identity has been useful to you. I just pointed out that perhaps there is a way to achieve the same goals without expanding your identity. I was trying to have a discussion about the essay. But it appears I misunderstood, and you did not actually wish to engage in a discussion, so I will stop here :)


I was absolutely engaging in a discussion. I just kept being told that my identity doesn’t count in some way. It’s not a discussion if I have to concede the points of the article to engage.

> Because a society where we can have less partisan opinions and more fruitful discussions is a better one.

Okay. What is partisan about me being queer or non-binary or autistic, other than those are immutable facets of me that either people hate or callously disregard?


We'd much rather live in a world where gender/sexual/health identities are as significant as being left/right handed. Can't jump to that stage without first going through what we are now, which is recognising those identities exist as part of who we are. Other commenters like myself have the pleasure of being able to talk about the ideal future scenario, you've got the problem of dealing with the present.

Right now having a group with commonality and a sense of belonging is very important and a huge improvement on where we were before leaving people isolated and alone. But don't lose sight of the end goal, which is for those problems that having a group identity protects against not existing at all. Those two things aren't in conflict, other comments here really are trying to be helpful, but in a theoretical physics sort of way that isn't going to help anyone directly in the next decade and ignores some practical hurdles we need to get over first.


The article or discussion in comments isn't about you. It is about human experience. The given advice is in good faith, as far as I can read into it. It is up to you to decide its worth. I don't think _your_ identity is under scrutiny.

The core of advice is to keep the identity _small_. That way I can pick my battles. The more labels I put on myself the more I will alienate other people. Each of those labels also means I'm not honest with myself. Label is just a single word for describing complex world views, preferences and emotions. If I attach this label to my personality, then over time I will also change myself to better fit it. It can also be source of frustration when I don't meet expectations that are set by any given label. For example, before I considered myself a bookworm and it was painful to discard this label from my identity as I found less and less time for reading.

Labels are still useful. They provide decent defaults for social interactions, and a sense of belonging. Birds of a feather flock together. It is too many labels that can be problematic, in a sense of crippling social interactions and turning them into ego duels. Again, this is just how my experience aligns with the article, and not at all scrutinizing _your_ identity.


> The article or discussion in comments isn't about you

It’s about identity. And specifically about rejecting expansion thereof. How could I not have personal feelings about it?


> you can admit to yourself that you are attracted to a variety of genders without thinking of yourself as being queer.

Sure, I can think of myself as bisexual instead, which I do. (tongue in cheek)

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, bisexuality can't not be part of my identity. Like @eyelidlessness, it took a long time to come to the conclusion. It affects how others see me, how they treat me, if they'll date me, etc. It caused heartbreak, depression, and so on. These are all experiences that set me apart from most other people, whether I want them to or not. If that's not identity, I don't know what is. As one ages and settles down, these things can become less central to your identity, but they're still there and important. Stoicism is one thing, but dismissing the difficulties experienced when going against the grain in any area of life is wishful thinking.

I think Paul Graham could have gone one step further in his analysis. Identity is the combination of labels, community and emotion. Labels are very valuable tools as shortcuts in discussions. They can also lead to dissonance, when definitions don't align or context is missing.

The community aspect, especially in rainbow or mental health issues (not an exhaustive list), can be critical to well-being and survival. Could you find the same support network somewhere else? Yes, and plenty of people do, but that doesn't discount the value of the Pride movement or the Trevor project, for instance. The downside of community is it can evoke tribalistic tendencies.

What Graham seems to take issue with most is the emotional component of one's identity. What's relevant here is not whether you have emotions about your identity, but whether you can set them aside long enough to have a dispassionate discussion. It does require that participants have a healthy emotional baseline, are mature enough not to take everything personally and retain an open mind.

I feel it's also important to point out that there is a difference between having an identity and being an identitarian. You can be bisexual without being an activist. You can be an activist without going full woke and thinking of every interaction as power balances and oppression dynamics.

We can choose whether it becomes a central part of our lives, whether we need to surround ourselves with only like-minded people or whether we enter into discussions looking to be offended, be right or exchange ideas. In that sense, it's no different from having a political opinion, a profession, musical tastes, a hobby or anything else.


A distinction without a difference.

No, it's a very real difference. Do I think this is an important part of who I am, or a random happenstance? If I were attracted to different people, would that make me a different person, in an important way?

Realising/deciding that it wasn't actually important to me what sexuality people perceived me as eliminated a lot of stress and conflict, personally.


>important

This term is totally nebulous. What it means to be the "same person but with different features" or a "different person" is just pure meaningless semantics.


Meaning is what we make it. If anything is meaningful then one must start with one's own experiences (and if they only mean something to oneself, well, that's fine too).

> personally.

And that is fine, but it doesn't mean it should be prescribed to everyone.


People recommend practices that worked for them. If other people have actually tried (rather than theorising) and found this didn't work for them then of course I'd be interested in hearing about that as well.

This specific “practice” was expressed in response to someone (me) who expressed having tried it, and found it unhelpful and hurtful. It’s not like hiding one’s queerness is a new revelation, it’s commonly associated with being closeted (often out of fear and/or self repression) and with abuse (conversion therapy).

Hiding isn't what's being suggested here. I'm very open about who I'm attracted to and what I'm doing. But I don't define myself by it.

I can’t speak for you and wouldn’t dare. I can only say that when I said verbatim these exact words what I was describing was “passing”. And in similar terms with neurodivergence, “masking”. I wasn’t accepting myself, I was accepting that I had a certain access and aptitude to be someone else for some social purposes. And even then, not really. Just kinda sorta.

Did you even read PG's article? It explains the consequences of identification.

Christopher Hitchens take on identity, an excerpt taken from this [1] comment:

> Beware of Identity politics. I'll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying "The Personal Is Political". It began as a sort of reaction to defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they 'felt', not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of the small difference, because each identity group begat its sub-groups and "specificities". This tendency has often been satirised—the overweight caucus of the Cherokee transgender disabled lesbian faction demands a hearing on its needs—but never satirised enough. You have to have seen it really happen. From a way of being radical it very swiftly became a way of being reactionary; the Clarence Thomas hearings demonstrated this to all but the most dense and boring and selfish, but then, it was the dense and boring and selfish who had always seen identity politics as their big chance. Anyway, what you swiftly realise if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighbourhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first, that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn't change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that "humanity" (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27242532


The problem happens when something is your identity. That's why it is difficult to change someone's mind.

Consider someone who is praying to God all their life. And you come and tell it's a sham. Even if you provide proof - accepting that means they were wrong all their life.

This is too much too handle.

So most people resort to sticking with their random identities.


While the topics of politics and religion are definitely known stirring up controversy, and that arguments often boil down to ideology and belief making common ground hard to find, I don't think it's healthy to view them as one in the same.

Religion is important to people's identities for different reasons than politics. Religion influences people through philosophy, spiritualism, and salvation. People are opinionated about it because is an intrinsic function of religion to be unwavering.

Politics is different. It's possible to know a great deal about policy, and still hold unwavering ideological commitment to a side because you understand the consequences of policy. Political decisions create dynasties and destroy lives. People's literal survival hinges on the decisions of politicians, and in a Democracy we all have to play a part in what direction the machine goes.

Politics directly affects people day-to-day in a way that Religion never can. The largest problem I see is that people view politics through the lens of self-interest. One group may want lower taxes so that they can better use and save their income, while others may want higher taxes to fund welfare and provide a safety net from extreme poverty. Neither side cares about what the other side has to gain or lose, they only care about their side. So then we end up with nothing but bad faith BS and crappy compromises.

Politics is important. We should work harder to understand where our neighbors are coming from and find solutions that benefit the most people, not just our people. Discussing politics deeply and knocking down social taboos is a good thing, and we should do it more, not less.

Religion, on the other hand, is not so important to debate. We should respect people's individual religious beliefs, but we should also learn to keep our differences to ourselves because our varying religious and spiritual beliefs aren't really up for debate. What I believe or don't believe is of no consequence to anyone but me.


> If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Something about this paragraph strikes me as very wrong, and I'll try to articulate why:

I would consider my values as part of my identity, and yet I'd like to think I can engage with someone else in a clear discussion that involves my values. I may have strong opinions about something, but that doesn't mean I'm unable to think clearly about it. I might even change my mind slightly about some thing or introduce nuance into an otherwise-strong opinion as a result of this discussion.

Furthermore, if values are part of one's identity, is Paul advocating that one should reduce one's set of values? This seems negative and possibly even dangerous.


There are two issue.

One is that if you encounter someone who doesn't reflect your values, because you have made those values part of your core identity, you will react very emotionally to them.

The second is that many of the people that use commonly sited values as their identity often simply copy/paste them from the others - without actually questioning them themselves, and so are really more part of a trend than a unit of original thought.

I agree that it's important to have values, but I'd love to see more people tolerant of a diversity of belief systems than a monolithic intolerant mass psyche.


I think he's suggesting that you not identify with your values. Instead of identifying with your values "I am an honest person, I am forthright in my dealings with people", you could try to identify with "I am someone who strives to act in accordance with my values." This is generally more inclusive - it broadens the scope of people who are in that identity, and makes it a bit easier to identify with other people who are acting out different values sets.

Personally, I don't spend a lot of time on identity, I just cultivate a practice of doing the best I can in the circumstances I'm in, as constrained by my limited knowledge and limited capacity. "Best" here is wildly subjective, of course, but that's kind of the point: I'm the arbiter of if I did the best I could in the circumstances, or if I was being self deceptive, or intolerably lazy or selfish or whatever.

That's not to say you couldn't tease out a value set that I'm acting out - I favor being kind and honest in most circumstances, but on rare occasions targeted, constrained cruelty is a useful and moral tool. Identifying with a particular thing gets in the way of the sort of contextual, thoughtful morality that enables thoughtful action.


"Things" is a pretty abstract term here. I think Paul is more guiding you to consider your values rather than your identity when considering a topic. I don't think he is proclaiming that you should eliminate values or some sort of subjective ethics.

From a social perspective, identities make us just as we make them. One is born in identities outside of their control. And it is not possible to separate yourself from an identity as easily as the author argues. But people can agree on clear rules of engagement, evidence, and interpretation, for a _better_ interaction.

I think it’s a good post, but I do wonder if it’s the British Army telling the Americans to fight with more class (line up like us, we’ll shoot, fair and square). Your identity should define your perspective.

The problem is, our society condones false identities. A true fifth column of lost souls.


If you can remove the participants who "want to be right" and keep the participants "who want to solve the problem" you might be able to have a more productive discussion of difficult issues. The "assume good intensions" mantra also would seem to help as a starting point.

This is also somewhat the root of representative government. Not many have the time or talent to really deeply understand these difficult issues and this is why we elect folks to do this for us. Imagine how much chaos would exist in a government where it is a true democracy and everyone's 2" deep opinion counts.


That falls apart when most of the representatives are lawyers who don't know anything except how to play the system against itself.

We may have to accept there isn't a perfect solution, only compromises and the lesser of evils. The good news is that we can look at attempts to solve this problem and evaluate the results. If we evaluate representative government in terms of absolute human progress it is hard to argue there is a better system.

A small tweak in the US we could all get behind is term limits for congress.


"If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

>I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

This is the problem, not that people have identities (its better to have the biggest possible), but that they reduce themselves and others not just to their identities but also all identities in general to two types, this is probably very local to the US but its spreading.


I just wish I have read this 12 years ago... gold for Paul.

Generally, what he's saying here is a really good idea and it's a good practice to the extent it's possible -- but, at the risk of beating this particular metaphorical dead horse, this is why the concept of "privilege" as we know it today came to be.

It takes a certain level of privilege to be free from "identity" constraints; put differently, the advice in this bit is FAR easier said than done for many.


Debating for ego, group affiliation, job, religion, identity, or simply doubling down on an incorrect position to avoid being wrong

I call these motivational fallacies.

They're not logical fallacies as there's no direct text one can point to as fallacious.

But they're still obstacles to finding the truth.


It's funny that he thinks that arguments over programming languages aren't religious.

Disagree. Certain topics are simply not meant to be discussed with the general public.

Regarding those topics, anybody who discusses them publicly is by definition not an expert.

In order to learn about those topics, you'll need to ask some questions in private.


I think this has something to do with our desire to be consistent. If we keep small identity, we will flip flop often in our views. It may be a worse strategy when viewed purely in terms of reward maximization.

Another plaintext PG link. Here's a HTTPS version of it: https://outline.com/yArYj7

> As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript

Have PG even visited HN? :'D


Ha, this is the bane of design. You don't need any particular expertise, you just have to like or dislike something. Product managers, you know who you are.

Helps to run a few concurrent anon alts and keep them sandboxed from real identity

Improves the discourse for everyone imo


The link to the Ledger article in the essay (linked from the word "others") is broken :(

Ironically infinite intersectionality of identity leads to individuals.

Gerd Baumann addresses the issue of national, ethnic and religious identity in his book The Multicultural Riddle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415922135

> people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that

“that” being things that are not political or religious.

What vaccines and 5G have shown is that you do not need to be qualified to talk about a topic. A strong opinion about anything is what qualifies you to be an expert in 2021.

Based on that article and my memory, this is a phenomenon that has happened in the last 10 years. Why this may be the case is something I’m not sure of. There are some possibilities. Perhaps the rise of mainstream social media allowed everyone to find their people, which emboldened people with minority opinions. Or maybe rising income inequality is making people feel increasingly powerless and this influences them to assert themselves in areas outside of politics and religion.


It's a little dated now, but all your friends who were constitutional scholars last month are epidemiologists this month.

I agree that it seems to be a new phenomenon and i think it's partly social media but also our tendency to be always online. We see so many headlines and hot takes that it feels like actual knowledge.


A strong opinion AND a large Instagram following.

The word you seek is dilettante. It can make the sincere look insane when they react naturally to it.

I think social media culture has a lot to do with it. It is a cultural thing, after all.

Political culture of the last few years also has something to do with it. Almost everything can be associated with a political faction now, 5G, vaccines, celebrity squabbles, ocean acidification, early human migration theories... Political culture bleeds out.


> Why this may be the case is something I’m not sure of.

Simple: Facebook


It must be nice to have the luxury of choosing to keep one's identity small rather than having a big identity foisted upon oneself by society, history, and the circumstances of one's birth.

While there are those identities that may be easy or useful to inhabit (and pretty much all of us do this at least sometimes) you're still the one who gets to choose how you know yourself.

And how does that foisting happen?

So PG has the unique privilege of being able to think for himself?

I'm not sure what you are trying to say really. But definitely victimhood is also a type of identity.


Slight correction: PG has the privilege of thinking that he can think for himself. And, everytime he posts such an enlightened self-aggrandizement, his post will be lauded and upvoted by many other similar free thinkers, all of whom are unorthodox, but never the victim, who see groupthink everywhere, but are never a part of it.

The self-congratulation will continue, until society improves.


Fun realization I made over the past 18 months or so after 6 years living in USA continuously: When you're white, you can't be an immigrant.

This whole time I thought I was a plucky immigrant seeking a better life (economically). Turns out I was and am just white. Still grappling with this.

Learning your identity was wrong is very discombobulating. On some level it feels like maybe I've been here long enough that I've become accepted? Nobody ever asks "Where are you from?" anymore ... guess working on my accent finally paid off.

Friends have repeatedly told me I'm not allowed to complain or comment because "I can pass". Feels like if that were true I wouldn't need to pass, but when I ask that question it's like their brain gets a blue screen.

Anyway, just sharing one person's experience. This is not commentary, a value judgement, or anything like that.


Hey there just wanted to say : not everyone in America thinks like this. there is this strange brand of modern racism where people reduce everything down to a race issue even when it is not. Ergo immigrant = not white. Same type of people that will claim that a given communities lack of resources is because it is a black community, ignoring that the community is poor and that there is a white community not 20 miles away with the exact same problems.

Ironically, this seems to come from highly educated individuals whom I suspect have never 1) been to a third world country, off the resort 2) lived in a financially struggling household 3) worked an honest day of manual labor ever.

Kibda got off in a rant there, but just wanted to say, fuck anyone who says "you can pass" when you say your an immigrant. If you want to call them out in language their indoctrinated brains can understand, say "are you denying my lived-experience?"

I suspect if you make your way closer to the midwest you will meet less of these people, and more people who treat you like just another person and couldn't give a fuck how you identify.

Cheers


> I suspect if you make your way closer to the midwest you will meet less of these people, and more people who treat you like just another person and couldn't give a fuck how you identify.

As someone that grew up somewhere in the midwest (which isn't as homogenous as is often implied) and then moved to a stereotypically left-leaning coastal city, this was perhaps true in certain circumstances but definitely not others. I wouldn't bother with smaller towns/villages outside of the largest metropolitan areas (that aren't university towns) unless you want to feel prejudiced by a racial identity that's imposed on you, and reminded of that on a daily basis, but the same is true of these smaller towns in most states as well as countries in the west, in my experience. It's a bit idealistic to say that people in the midwest care less about how you identify if there are instead more that impose their own identity on you.


Yeah somehow I just don't buy that. Like ymmv but I've seen exactly 2 examples of actual racist people in the midwest.

But like yeah I mean I grew up in one town, lived 1 life, and im a member of the racial majority so take my words with a grain of salt I guess.


> im a member of the racial majority so take my words with a grain of salt I guess.

In that case, I probably will, unfortunately. The incidents I encountered directed at me almost never involved a witness who belonged to a racial majority, so if I had to guess you wouldn't have witnessed a representative number of them either. I suspect that's because most people are (thankfully) afraid of being seen as racist in public, so they're usually in a more one-on-one setting.


>Ironically, this seems to come from highly educated individuals whom I suspect have never 1) been to a third world country, off the resort 2) lived in a financially struggling household 3) worked an honest day of manual labor ever.

is programming the common denominator between them?


What do you mean?

I mean yeah a lot of programmers fall into that catagory but no theres a plenty of people in all different professions (including blue collar professions) that fall into the catagory im describing


Compared to this, it's fun to live and work in NYC. Here everybody assumes that everybody else can be an immigrant, or at least moved across the country to live here. But everybody also assumes that everybody else may be local, independently from the skin color, eye shape, accent, etc.

(I personally love this arrangement. I've seen it in several other cities, like London and Moscow.)


Happens for people leaving the USA (and other countries) too. They're not immigrants, they're ex-pats!

This doesn't mean the same thing though.

If they are working abroad with the intention of returning, then expatriate is the correct term.


No, in my understanding expatriated has two specific meanings:

1. Legally expatriated by a Nation/government. Removed from a nation's territory by decision of said nation.

2. Comission/Secondment abroad, where an employee of a government/company gets assigned to work abroad for a fixed period.

From what I gather the term expat has been appropriated in British-American circles, to somehow detach higher income immigrants from the 'immigrant' stigma. I think this became a de facto convention when Investment Banking and Retail Banks (in non english-speaking countries) started adopting the term 'expat' in customer branding, to target higher income immigrants.


When an English term sounds too shitty on them, the British reliably turn to Latin or French.

Work migrant is even more correct.

> Friends have repeatedly told me I'm not allowed to complain or comment because "I can pass". Feels like if that were true I wouldn't need to pass, but when I ask that question it's like their brain gets a blue screen.

“Friends”


It was meant as a friendly warning, I think. Like a "Make sure you don't say this in public or to people you aren't super close with, you'll be crucified"

Gross of other people to tell you who you are. I hope you swiftly told them to F off.

What is the question they are blue-screening on?

I think I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I don’t understand this formulation: “you can’t be an immigrant”. It sounds like you are, by definition, an immigrant. I wonder if this statement would more accurately capture the truth: “I realised that my experience is not aligned with some dominant popular narratives of immigrant life”. Or even: “generalisations of the immigrant experience are fraught”.

If people are telling you that you can’t “complain or comment” on your experience.. I’d suggest questioning what kind of people you are calling your friends.


> If people are telling you that you can’t “complain or comment”

It’s because any such commenting is immediately seen in the context of the current social rights battles. Immigrant implies brown or hispanic in most people’s mind. Since I do not experience that sort of prejudice (supposedly), any complaining is immediately seen as “distracting”.


"all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible"

If one is opposed to, for example, the genocide of a people of some particular identity, then that strongly held position may itself be an identity, while another group holds as its identity the support of such genocide. One of these identities is essential to progress; the other is detrimental.

There is value in a moral identities, and likewise value in opposition to immoral identities. The difference is absolutely consequential, even though many people will fail discern on which side of the line they stand.


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